The question is often asked, How do we reconcile the concept of prayer with the belief that Hashem always cares for us and does what is best for us? If we do not have something we want, then obviously this is Hashem’s will, and thus, by definition, it must be the best thing for us. So, why should we bother to pray? And why would prayer change the situation? If it is best for us not to have what we want, why would Hashem give it to us in response to our prayers?
One answer is that the greatest kindness Hashem can perform for us is to allow us to draw close to Him. When we pray and submit our requests to Hashem, we get close to Him, and establish a meaningful relationship, which is the greatest privilege of all. And so, Hashem, in His kindness, waits to give us what we want until we ask Him for it, so that we will be compelled to establish a close relationship with Him.
This answer assumes that at times it would be more beneficial for us to have something, but Hashem withholds it from us so that we can have the privilege of bonding with Him. However, we might also suggest that at least in some circumstances, it might be detrimental for a person to have what he wants, but then become beneficial for him as a result of his prayer. To understand how, we turn our attention to a parable told by the Chafetz Chaim in a different context.
A man passed away after 120 years, and his soul ascended to the heavens to stand trial. He was told by the heavenly court that he would have to experience some suffering for the sins he committed during his lifetime, and thereafter he would be allowed entry into Gan Eden. But then they found on his record that he once insulted his fellow.
“Suffering will not help you for that,” the court told him. “You never asked your fellow for forgiveness, and so you cannot earn atonement for that sin. It’s not in our hands.” There was no choice but for the soul to return to earth to correct this mistake. He would have to go back down to the world and treat people properly. The last thing a soul wants is to return to earth, but there was no choice.
“Whatever it takes,” he said to the court.
They informed him that he would be sent down as a wealthy, handsome, and brilliant man.
“What?!” the man exclaimed. “How can I do my job if I am wealthy, handsome, and brilliant? How will I be able to avoid becoming arrogant and condescending? How can I ensure to treat people properly under these conditions, living this kind of life?”
The court explained that he needed to endure this test in order to earn his share in Gan Eden. He pleaded with them to change the decision, noting that he would likely commit even more sins if he returned in this form. Finally, they agreed to send him back as a poor beggar. He was overjoyed, and thanked them profusely.
“I will be so humble,” he said enthusiastically, “and that way I will be able to fulfill my mission!”
And so he returned to earth and suffered bitterly from poverty and hardship. Throughout his life, he wondered to himself, Why is Hashem doing this to me?
The truth, however, is that Hashem is being so kind to him, placing him in the precise position he needs to be in to achieve what he needs to achieve. The best thing for him was to be poor.
Now if that person would go to a rabbi to ask for help, and explain how no matter what he does he cannot earn a living. The rabbi would urge him to pray very hard and beg Hashem for money. And his prayers might very well work. The Mabit writes that the purpose of tefillah is for us to recognize how needy and deficient we are, and how we must depend on Hashem for absolutely everything. If this man would sincerely pray to Hashem, and truly recognize how dependent he is on Hashem for his needs, then earning money would not threaten his mission at all. After going through the experience of heartfelt and sincere tefillah and submission to Hashem, he is now in a position where he can become wealthy without becoming arrogant. If he would acquire wealth without praying for it first, it would be a disaster and undermine the entire purpose of why he was on earth. But being the beneficiary of wealth as a result of tefillah is a positive outcome.
We must trust that Hashem knows precisely what he’s doing, and that He’s full of love and mercy. At the same time, though, He commanded us to pray for all our needs, and there is no contradiction whatsoever.